The Idea of Social Justice in Ancient China
THOMAS H. C. LEE
One of the most important characteristics of Chinese social philosophy is its conspicuous lack of one word that we can readily translate as "justice." On the other hand, might it not also be true that the entire Chinese philosophical tradition, distinctly marked by "this worldliness" and by an overriding concern about social order or good society, is fundamentally a perennial search for what we may call "social justice"? Practically all discussions that have bearing on the issue of justice or social justice are found in the Chinese articulations on a moral philosophy of political or social order. In this chapter, therefore, I shall not always seek to clarify the distinction between the two and will proceed to examine the ancient Chinese ideas of a good society by asking questions that are relevant to our concern about and definition of social justice.
Any careful reading of the ancient texts and reports of recent archaeological findings will nevertheless show that the rise of a "Chinese" consciousness did not develop without some religious dimension. It was long after Confucius' time that secularized philosophizing became the dominant tendency among the thinking men, and emphasis became concerned almost exclusively with good government and what it could do for the people. Within this general tendency, understandably, there were competing opinions and assumptions. The formation of a distinctly Chinese view of a morally just society was, however, completed by the end of the Warring States Period (483-221 B.C.). I shall therefore limit myself to the philosophers before this date, which is commonly accepted as marking the end of ancient China.